August 25th, 2012 by Brennan Burns
The Portland Timbers encounter the Vancouver Whitecaps on Saturday at JELD WEN Field (7:30 PM ROOT Sports), their northernmost Cascadian neighbors in town for the second of three derbies this season.
Both sides enter the match coming off disappointing defeats, Portland still smarting after tossing away a two goal lead to the New York Red Bulls, Vancouver dejected following a 2-nil loss to the Seattle Sounders, dropping them to the bottom of the bonfire in the current Cascadia Cup standings.
The Whitecaps arguably got the better of Portland in their last meeting at the Fortress of Thorns back in May, Darren Mattocks equalizing late to negate an opening goal from Kris Boyd. In two meetings last year, Portland came out on top both home and away, yet the tables are turned for two clubs in their sophomore seasons in the modern era’s top flight.
The Canadian club finished dead last in the league in the inaugural MLS season for both sides, a meager 28 point haul leaving them far from the their lofty position this year, 5 points clear of FC Dallas for the West’s fifth playoff spot, with a game in hand to boot. The Rose City lads punched above their weight last year, but the same margin of 5 points required to overtake NYRB for the final postseason berth proved a bridge too far.
The Timbers heady success in season one is replaced by depressing results in the second, sitting next to last in the league and eager to avoid Vancouver passing them the baton known as the wooden spoon. That dip in form and points ultimately cost John Spencer his job at midseason, general manager and interim head coach Gavin Wilkinson as yet unable to produce better results.
Still searching for a long term solution to replace him on the sidelines, the Kiwi is attempting to inject a more attacking style into the side, and he points to an increase in goals and scoring chances in recent games as evidence of improvement.
While the club focuses on the highlights, the diehard supporters in the Timbers Army are lamenting the lowlights while witnessing Wilkinson lead the team to five losses in seven, two points from two draws an unsatisfying return from twenty-one points on offer.
Vancouver fans are familiar with Portland’s situation this year, suffering similar circumstances when their manager was dismissed and the 2011 season ended under a cloud of negativity under the leadership of an interim gaffer of their own. But the Whitecaps started this season well, only for losses in three of their last four to take the luster off a much improved record under new manager Martin Rennie, but they are still comfortably in possession of a spot in the MLS playoffs.
Rennie’s turnaround is marked by a ruthlessness in rotation, the transfer policy a revolving door as numerous players have been shown the exit door as the Scot has molded the team to his vision.
Sebastien Le Toux came and went in less than half a season, Dane Richards coming over in a swap from the Red Bulls, the Jamaican already scoring twice since the switch just weeks ago. Eric Hassli was issued walking papers as he went cross country to Toronto FC, that move following Davide Chiumiento’s departure to FC Zurich and paving the way for Kenny Miller’s arrival from Cardiff City.
The rash of changes comes as a result of Rennie’s frustration with a lack of finishing from the forwards other than Mattocks, the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year. Vancouver are much more resolute in defense this year, but goals are still in short supply despite the improvements.
The Timbers are not far behind the Whitecaps in the scoring column, the likes of Darlington Nagbe, Franck Songo’o, Sal Zizzo, and Bright Dike recent revelations on offense for Portland, the club’s 5 goals in the past 3 games a marked increase from the previous 3 outings that saw Portland come up empty on each occasion.
While Dike and Nagbe both scoring against New York was a step in the right direction, the offense was also culpable for wasted chances to ice the match before the killer blow was delivered. Boyd may reclaim his starting spot, but the striker’s recent form has exhibited similar profligacy, so it’s anyone’s guess who Wilkinson decides to deploy up top.
As the offense shines a bit brighter, the defense still stands out as the sore thumb, repeated mental lapses and malevolent marking continuing to repeal the positivity shown going forward. In spite of some scintillating stops to earn Save of the Week honors, the inclusion of Donovan Ricketts, the stated upgrade at goalkeeper for Troy Perkins, is doing little to quell the rampant mistakes at the back.
The midfield faces a defensive crisis of its own, the crucial disruptive ability of Diego Chara ruled out as the Colombian picked up a late yellow card against New York to earn suspension this weekend. Wilkinson has options off the bench, Eric Alexander a potential replacement alongside captain Jack Jewsbury in the center of the park. The team’s leading assist man is finding it difficult to get off the bench under new management, but Chara’s absence may provide the opportunity Alexander desires to play in his natural role.
For Vancouver, the only notable absences are Gershon Koffie, whose late high boot against Seattle’s Andy Rose deemed reckless during retroactive review, and Omar Salgado is still sidelined with a fractured foot. Returning for the ‘Caps are captain Jay DeMerit who is listed probable following a concussion, and midseason Designated Player pickup Barry Robson now eligible after the league’s disciplinary committee’s suspension made the Scot a late scratch against Seattle.
The lack of Chara to counter Robson will be the most pressing dilemma for Portland, whose precise passing and deep lying strikes pose a danger to a defense that displays daftness at inopportune times. That disarray in defense may be further hampered if Kosuke Kimura is sidelined after breaking his nose when New York’s Tim Cahill egregiously elbowed the right back in the face. Why Cahill has yet to suffer the same fate of suspension from the league as Koffie is unclear, but the lack of adjudication will certainly be felt more deeply should Kimura miss out, but Wilkinson did indicate mid-week that Kimura would be available and wearing a mask.
The league form of both teams goes out the window in this one-off derby, both sides equally up for a contest with Cascadia Cup bragging rights on the line. Portland presently sits in the catbird seat, but Vancouver will be doubly pleased if they can get their league record back on track and strike a blow to their Oregon rivals’ hopes of silverware this year.
The Timbers are trying to ride out a storm of their own creation as the season enters its final third, if they are to retain their pride down the stretch they’ll need to start by overcoming the wave of attacks sure to come from the Whitecaps. To turn back the tempest, a swell of emotion from the North End will surely help steer the team clear and propel the Cascadia Cup back to Portland.